Self-Control and (Human) Nature
The Bible tells us to go to the animals and become wise. So, I did. The dog showed me how to deal with self-control. When I put a piece of chicken in front of her, I tell her to leave it. She has two tactics. One is that she looks at me and slowly slides backward and away from the piece of chicken. When she is at some distance, she simply turns her head away and refuses to look at the chicken. She waits until I give her the signal to eat it, trusting it will come.
She knows instinctively that if she keeps staring at it in close proximity, the sight and the smell of the chicken will make her succumb to it, and she will surely eat it. Her body would follow the irresistible urge to dig in. And so she is wise. Instinctively wise.
Now, she is not perfect. It sometimes happens that she simply goes to the chicken despite my command and, pretending I don't exist, gobbles it down. She knows what to do, but it takes time, and it takes repetition, and it takes patience. She is learning, and I am learning to wait for patterns of behavior to get ingrained in her brain.
The dog's exercise is all about self-control. Most of the problems in this world have a root in the failure us controlling ourselves. We live in a time of immediate self-gratification. We have enough money, so if we want to buy something, we don't wait for our birthdays to come around but order it. We take out the food we want or simply open the fridge, and we don't have to wait for crops to grow because if we want broccoli for dinner, then the Meijer is right around the corner. But the problem with this age of immediate gratification is that society is full of undisciplined people. A lack of self-control is visible in addictions, violence, obesity, unwanted pregnancies, debt, and conflicts, big or small. It has to do with us giving immediate satisfaction and not doing the hard thing of doing the right thing.
Just like the dog, self-control can be trained in us. And must be trained in us. Proverbs 16:32 says, “Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city.”
Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Right before Chapter 5 identified self-control as a fruit of the Spirit, a sign that Christ is in us. And didn't Jesus have so much self-control? He was so provoked, so tempted, but he never failed.
We all know that a dog with self-control is obedient and, therefore, more pleasant. Well, Christians with self-control are more obedient to God and, therefore, more likely to grow as a person. Spiritually, relationally, and personally.
Thomas Aquinas said that self-controlled people can preserve their lives, which means they have the agency and power to keep themselves happy and healthy. And that is because self-control is a marker of maturity, wisdom, and, when you are a Christian, of Christ’s transforming work inside of you.